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Green building: Solar panels and earthquake faults don't mix

The Los Angeles Community College System, blessed with $5.7 billion in voter-approved bonds, had a grand plan to be a national model of green energy: its nine colleges would be self-sufficient in electricity thanks to solar, wind and geothermal power.

But major blunders and miscalculations over the last six years cost the program $10 million, including $4 million for designs of solar and wind installations that would never move to construction. One of the biggest problems: Three solar arrays had to be abandoned because they were planned to be built above seismic faults.

The missteps, uncovered as part of a six-part Los Angeles Times investigation of the college construction program, offer a sobering lesson to builders of public and commercial buildings who plan arrays of photovoltaic panels: Check nearby seismic faults beforehand.

In Los Angeles, two fields of solar panels were proposed for Southwest College, which is bisected by the Newport-Inglewood fault. The deadly Long Beach earthquake of 1933, with a magnitude of 6.4, occurred along that fault. And school collapses in that earthquake led to creation of the Division of the State Architect, which monitors seismic safety in construction of all public schools in California.

So in 2009, when the Community College District assigned Chevron Energy Solutions to design solar projects that would be built right on the earthquake fault, it was up to the Division of the State Architect to review them.

Not surprisingly, it rejected the plan. School buildings cannot be constructed above earthquake faults, and neither can fields of solar panels, the state found. State inspectors feared that heavy steel solar panels built over a parking lot near the corner of Western Avenue and Imperial Highway would crash onto bystanders in an earthquake.

The college district was forced not only to drop its planned solar arrays at Southwest College, but also to scrap a proposal to build fields of solar panels and wind turbines on a fault that runs through Mission College in Sylmar, near the epicenter of a deadly 1971 earthquake.

So far, the district has built six megawatts of solar energy, of a total of 16 megawatts now planned -- well short of the 60 megawatts in renewable energy that would be needed to meet the original ambitious goal of self-sufficiency.

Read more about the green energy plans gone awry at the Los Angeles Community College District.

-- Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland

Photo: These solar panels at Pierce College in Woodland Hills are among the district's green energy projects that were built. But millions of dollars were poured into designs for installations that proved so impractical or unpopular that they were scrapped.

Credit:  Gary Friedman /Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (14)

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dangermouse: You sure aren't a solar engineer. You don't have the slightest idea how a solar cell is manufactured so why are you trying to scare people away from the cleanest energy source available to man?

Community College District has awarded Chevron Energy Solutions to develop solar projects to be built on earthquake fault, it was up to the State Department as an architect to review.

I'm no solar engineer, but many moons ago, I had to fabricate a solar panel from scratch materials for a science fair.

Required some nasty stuff back then - that in turn, created some nasty waste.

Like DeCo said, arsenic, hydrochloric, hydroflouric and sulfuric acids just to name a few.

I just poured the stuff on my crops - good green fertilizer.

DeCo: You are extremely ignorant about solar power. Solar modules are made from Silicon. Silicon is abundant and not toxic. Compared to the government subsidies provided to nuclear power and other energy industries, subsidies to solar are relatively minor. Furthermore the price of using solar has plummeted in the last couple of years and is still going down. Solar has become viable without any government subsidies. You can't say the same of nuclear. Nuclear power plants can't even get financed without government guarantees on the financing stating that if anything goes wrong the taxpayers will pay for it, not the investors. Not to mention that it is the taxpayers who are responsible for dealing with the radioactive waste from these plants. Nuclear power is a classic case of privatizing the profits and socializing the losses... Please educate yourself and stop regurgitating sound bites from the Fox news channel.

The ideal situation is that you have solar panels installed, hook up to the electricity grid and then use less energy than you contribute so the electric company sends you a check in the mail every month instead of the other way around. Awesome idea, isn't it? For some people this is already a reality.

Just as well. Solar panels never pencil out without huge govt subsidies (witness the Spain debacle), take 1000 acress per 100MW assuming no dirt or bird poop, and contin high quantities of Gallium Arsenide, a class A toxic. Despite what you see in Japan from the media frenzy, nuclear is the way to go (greenest and safest by far).

What's wrong about developing solar energy, this plan looked really efficient, they should find a quick solution and install asap snew solar equipment.
They don't want to build solar installation on earthquake faults but School don't look like a real issue.

An even simpler solution exists that would lower energy bills dramatically, and not involve any installation or equipment. This solution could be applied throughout the world, for dirt cheap. The answer?

Painting our roofs WHITE.

Studies show that this simple technique, multiplied over vast urban areas, has the ability to lower energy costs by up to 30%, by reflecting vast amounts of light and heat back into space, similar to how the polar caps keep our planet cool. The secretary of energy estimates it would save americans $735 billion dollars a year.

Of course, something this sensible and easy will never come to pass, as long as DWP and EDISON have a stranglehold on our power.

Dear Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland,
Want to write a real news story about solar? Write about how the California utilities are fighting feed-in tariffs from solar systems. They are fighting clean energy so they can keep a stranglehold on the current delivery system (and profits). Their answer is to build giant solar arrays in the desert and string giant power lines all over the place so they can keep control of the energy instead of allowing distributed generation. This is a hot controversial story for the right writer. Not your typical LA Times piece though. Something that really needs to be exposed.

Maybe all the gas and oil facilities that are built around fault lines should be immediately shut down too. This sounds like some kind of propaganda piece put out by the gas and coal industries. The big utilities are running scared of solar because they can't figure out how to keep their stranglehold on your pocketbooks. That's why they are refusing to buy back any extra totally clean energy produced by their customer's solar systems (feed in tariffs). Furthermore, solar can be mounted on existing building's roofs and doesn't need to be built in remote giant arrays. Problem solved.

djack80: We are the stupidest people on the globe. You know why? Because we are using more fossil fuels than anyone on earth. Don't buy into the propaganda about the natural gas industry and their "new techniques." These wonderful "techniques" ruin the land to obtain the gas, and then release greenhouse gasses when the gas is used. This is not a solution, it's a problem. The price of solar energy systems is dropping dramatically. The only real chance our country has at self sufficiency is using the free clean energy provided by the sun every day! Please, use your head and analyze the real issues instead of cheering on the commercials put out by the gas and coal industries.

@Engineer READ the article. The spent money on PLANNING and DESIGN, not installation. If they had checked the land prior to this they would not have wasted the money there. Not that I understand why the hell it costs so much for the designs and such. Someone out there is collecting money for what exactly?

If they had been stupid enough to build it, yes, of course they could still use it, but you try not waste money by building something somewhere where there is a higher probability of needing to spend lots of money repairing or replacing it.

Solar works well when well planned. It has a larger capital outlay at the beginning than other methods of power generation, usually a payback period of 7-15 years depending on the price of electricity, where we live it is closer to 15 years because we have inexpensive elecricity. However and it is a huge however after that the fuel is FREE, maintainance is minimal. Natural gas on the other hand is finite and will become more expensive over time as it becomes more scarce.Even being able to free it from shale and having more to burn does not make it infinate, yes we are self sufficient in natural gas, at the moment, but it will not continue indefinatelly and it will become more and more expensive. It costs less to build a natural gas generating system but there is a continual financial drain in buying natural gas and the maintainance is much more expensive.
The solar panels are vulnerable to an earthquake bacause they are brittle, and will fail if broken but they are not dangerous if broken, just ineffective.

The notion that we should rely on a finite source for energy be it oil,gas,coal or uranium is beyond stupid. Yes as transitional methods of creating energy thaey are useful but in all cases the fuel will run out. Solar,wind, tidal not so much.

We put solar on our house in the Pacific NW, an area of cloudy days and cheap electicity in 2000. We will see payback most likely in 2014-2015. After that our elecricity is free. So when you guys will be payine ever increasin rates for your power, we will be continuing to leave our lights on for no expenditure. The notion that if you have solar power you have 1 lightbulb burning and that is it is just ignorance. We wive in an all electric houes and heat in 20 degree weather with elecricity. Do we have a meter, yup. In the summer we sell our excess power to the electric company. We have used this reliable system for over 10 years, the only maintainnance has been washing off the panels twice a year and replacing 4 batteries.

What a joke. We have to be the stupidest people on the Globe. Solar is wat more expensive then Natural Gas fired power. In the last 5 years, the Natural Gas industry has developed new techniques to free gas from shale which makes our country self sufficient for this resource. We need to be developing new generations of Gas fire plants (like those in Seal Beach and Huntington beach)

How idiotic! Solar panels are not nuclear power plants! So what if there's an earthquake fault?! So what if there's even a quake?! What possible downside is there to having panels installed? Really, what? Please let's hear because with 30 years working as a engineer I can't imagine ANY GOOD REASON!

Has common sense so completely left the US?

If you have solar panels "fail" some how because of a quake, it only affects that building. THIS IS EXACTLY THE KIND OF ENERGY REDUNDANCY YOU WANT! Because most other installations of solar panels that do happen to survive (even those located on OTHER FAULT LINES!) can hum along without being affected by some single hypothetical building.

And if the concern is structural, well why even allow such a building still stand at all. Adding solar power panels will not affect quake damage significantly more than the building itself collapsing if it is expected to so do. And the building will certainly cause more local damage that the solar panels affixed to it. A person with a brain would realize this and condemn the building OR stop worrying about the solar panels and let energy independence reign in the name of national security.

This dithering about irrelevant yet completely blind rule-following is nuts. Do local government even understand the reasons for the rules; the original spirit and technical intent? It seems not.

It is fiddling while Rome burns by

It is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

It borders on bureaucratic high treason.

Honestly, stupidity like this makes the rest of the world (and plenty of Americans) think that America simply DESERVES to collapse, simply out of Darwinian expediency.


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